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Jeff Parker: Reinventing Tradition

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Jazz, if nothing else, is a flexible, chameleonic music that has always borrowed from culture, brought it back and reinvented itself, and in turn, transformed what it borrowed from. It is constantly evolving and changing. In this way, history and tradition is made all the time. —Jeff Parker
Is there such a thing as a Chicago sound? Back in the year 2000, a compilation was released that tried to portray a new and exciting musical scene. The album was called Chicago 2018... It's Gonna Change and it highlighted a brilliant mixture of free jazz, electronica, post-rock, art pop and experimental folk music. Of the eighteen different projects on the album, guitarist Jeff Parker was involved in four: Toe 2000, Tricolor, Isotope 217 and Tortoise and one could have included even more music with Parker's stamp on it.

The impressive thing is not that Parker plays and has played in many different constellations, it is the rule rather than the exception in jazz. No, what's special is how Parker is able to navigate naturally between different genres and scenes while he still has a personal sound that he brings to the projects. Past and present, they include playing funky mainstream jazz with drummer Peter Erskine and organist Joey DeFrancesco, cosmic free jazz with trumpeter Rob Mazurek, modern jazz with saxophonist Fred Anderson and sophisticated post-rock with his most profiled band, Tortoise.

Between his many calls as a sideman, Parker has also found time to pursue a career as a leader. Each album in his discography is worth seeking out, but the ones with his own name in the spotlight are among the most rewarding. Especially Parker's recent album, The New Breed (International Anthem, 2016) is perhaps the most organic amalgamation of Parker's many sounds, incorporating both electronic beats, funky rhythms and abstract and melodic playing. By now, Parker has left Chicago for Los Angeles, but he still has an open-minded approach to genres and music and he agreed to answer some questions about his past, present and the future.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning. Where were you born and how did you get into music?

Jeff Parker: I was born on April 4, 1967 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My parents were teachers, by profession. My father was an avid music fan, and his side of the family was very musical—a lot of people who sang in choirs in school and at church, and played instruments, though none professionally. My Pop had a great and diverse collection of recordings, and his love of music was passed down to me. Some of his records that I gravitated to were by Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver and Chico Hamilton. But black radio at the time was rich with soul, funk and R&B and we spent a lot of time listening to that as well.

AAJ: When did you decide to pursue the path of the guitar? Did you take guitar lessons early in the process?

JP: I sang in the youth choir at church, but my first actual instrument was piano. I took a year of lessons, but it wasn't a natural fit for me. Eventually I picked up my older sister's guitar and started plucking out songs by ear, so my father got one of his students, named Jon Spencer, to give me private lessons every week. He was very creative and encouraging, and had me improvising and writing my own songs from the very beginning.

AAJ: As I understand it, you later went to Berklee to study music. How did that come about and what happened with your music during that period of your life?

JP: I went to Berklee because I wanted to learn how to chase the sounds around that I was hearing in my head. Which, I later figured out, was bebop, or this particular advanced African-American improvised harmonic language. I was intrigued by this music from the very beginning, but didn't discover a means to really immerse myself in the learning of it until I got to college in Boston. It was a great time to be there—my community of classmates and roommates were really entrenched in finding our voice within the music, and we were playing all the time.

AAJ: Part of the thing that I find fascinating about your work as a musician is the way you avoid a fixed approach to music and still have your own voice on the guitar. How would describe your own tone and your aesthetic approach to the instrument?

JP: I try to play the guitar with a good tone and clear, simple ideas. I feel that all of my role models in music do the same. I think a good sound transcends any musical style or genre.

AAJ: Did studying at Berklee help to develop the openness you have in terms of approaching music or did you find that the environment was limiting in its perception of the jazz tradition?

JP: I feel that Berklee gave me technical knowledge more than anything else. I learned how to apply that knowledge in a practical sense from interacting with other musicians and playing sessions and doing gigs. Jazz is very challenging to teach in an institution because you can't really separate the music from what was happening socio- politically. The truth in the music always seems to find a way to come out, but the institutions rarely help the process.


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